When Joan Palmer was eight years old, the Second World War started in Europe. That would soon have an immediate impact on her young life: leaving her father behind in Ashford, Kent, Joan with her mother and sister spent the following years with her grandparents in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire – to escape the bombs. After leaving school Joan worked as a trainee drawing tracer in an engineering company that designed diesel engines and she took an exam in mechanical engineering – the only girl in the class. Next step was learning shorthand and typing so as to work for an estate agent. Then family life came along: at 25, Joan married a farmer. They bought a farm in Biddenden where she raised three children, as well as helping with the lambing and the strawberry crop. When the children were older, Joan went back to work, first for a local insurance company and then a firm of solicitors. Eventually she was headhunted for a job at an insurance brokers in London and began to commute every day.
All the while, since her school days really, Joan was sketching, drawing and painting in her spare time. Joan says she was always ‘that way inclined’. The first indication that her painting was more than a little hobby came when, after a busy day at work in London and a tiring train journey home, she still found the energy to attend art classes in the evening. There she experimented with pencil, charcoal, watercolour and acrylics.
“I wouldn’t be without my paints”
Retiring from work in the early ‘90s freed Joan up for a greater involvement with the arts. In 1992 Joan took the leap to join the Weald of Kent Art Group (WoKAG), as the present-day Weald of Kent Art Society was then known. That, for both Joan and for WoKAG, proved to be a most fruitful union.
The Weald of Kent Art Group had been founded in 1962 by Hawkhurst residents William and Doris Smith to unite ‘professional artists, experienced amateur artists and keen beginners, all of whom paint in various mediums’. There were two sets of membership, one for exhibitors and one for non-exhibitors. The new group found a great resonance: there was even a waiting list to join the exhibiting members group. WoKAG met in Tenterden, held regular painting sessions, organised social events and above all, put on large scale open-air art shows, jointly with other art societies. Judging by the press cuttings, the WoKAG shows were a respected fixture in the town’s calendar.
JAZZING THINGS UP
WoKAG not only proved a very useful conduit for Joan’s artistic output but it also provided a platform where her administrative skills and sociable, outgoing nature could be put to good use. When Joan joined, Owen Johnson was the group’s membership secretary and she recalls soon being roped in to type up the group’s minutes. So it was only a natural progression for Joan to become secretary herself – a position she held from 1994 on for 11 years. As secretary, Joan became the keeper of the group’s history records – a simple scrapbook. Joan laughs when she admits she thought the scrapbook looked a bit dull just with press cuttings and so decided to ‘jazz it up a little’. Always a keen photographer, with her camera she captured many of the occasions when WoKAG members got together.
With her quiet determination, Joan was also instrumental in getting celebrities on board to open the WoKAG summer and Christmas exhibitions. In 1999 the guest was Nigel Nicholson of Sissinghurst Castle; in 2000 it was David Aspinall, Kent region winner of the Channel 4 programme Watercolour Challenge. David subsequently joined WoKAG and went on to become the group’s President in 2009. Sometimes of course things did not go quite to plan. When Joan invited her former grammar school contemporary Bob Holness – the radio and TV presenter best known for Blockbusters – to open one of WoKAG’s exhibitions, there was no reply. A year later the telephone rang and a voice at the other end said “Hello Joan, it’s Bob.” Joan immediately assumed this was another fellow artist, Bob Davison, so she cheerily replied “Oh hello, Bob.” It was Bob Holness, explaining that her invitation had got mixed up in the post and he was just ringing to say sorry.
Talking to Joan about her time as WoKAG secretary you sense that she really relished the variety of her work there – in fact, she thought the world of the committee at the time, describing its efficient operation ‘like a little army’. The committee, in return, recognised Joan’s contribution by awarding her ‘life membership’ of the group – an honour bestowed on only a few. Joan says this came as a big surprise – she just enjoyed what she was doing. Always doing it in her particular way, just being Joan: quiet, helpful, always positive and cheerful, open and approachable, with that lovely smile.
“In the open air it’s easier to really see the subject”
FINDING THE STYLE
For Joan, painting has never been a full-time occupation but when you ask her how important painting has been in her life, she answers without hesitation that she ‘wouldn’t be without her paints’. Wherever she’s been in her life, the paints have travelled with her. On frequent visits to her daughter in Asia, she took her sketchbook and even attended Chinese painting classes in Singapore. Her main motifs are landscapes – all of Joan’s paintings speak of her love for the countryside. She paints both from real life and photos but prefers to paint en plein air as she feels it’s easier to really see the subject. Joan has worked with watercolour, oil and acrylics, mainly using a table easel. When she was experimenting with acrylics, she was influenced by Terry Harrison (1951-2017) who in turn was inspired by Constable and Turner and favoured traditional landscapes as subject. Constable is one of Joan’s favourite artists too – she says she has always looked to other artists for ideas but also tried to find her own style. This she did, slowly but surely, always honing it with expert guidance. For watercolour, Joan attended classes with Sue Williams in Biddenden; when Joan started using oils she went to John Shave.
Joan’s oil painting entitled ‘Calm water’ was inspired by a photo. In Joan’s treatment, with a limited palette, the subject exudes calm. It was a challenge, reflects Joan, to achieve the various nuances of greens and blues. She is a slow painter and tends to fiddle and finesse, going back to a painting many times. Her obsession with detail, she thinks, is a legacy from the time when she had to draw meticulously in the engineering business – and it’s a habit she’s been trying to shed.
The oil ‘Calm water’ sold at an exhibition in Sutton Valence. Joan has always made a point of exhibiting her work widely – not only with WoKAG/WoKAS in Tenterden but also at other venues in Sutton Valence, Rolvenden and Biddenden. How important is it for her to sell her work? It gives you a buzz, Joan says, it tells you that someone likes your work. Often paintings are like babies, sometimes it is difficult to let go. ‘Willie Lott’s cottage’, done in acrylics, was one such baby for Joan. She did not really want to sell it and therefore priced it so high that she thought no one would buy it – but still the painting found a keen buyer and left her hands.
"Start small and expand gradually
...start with the small things"
ONE FOR THE ROYAL ACADEMY
Asked whether and how her style has evolved over time, Joan thinks not much except for achieving deeper shadows. She admits to one slight regret: never having had a designated studio space for painting – that is something she wishes she had had. Joan tends to have periods when she paints every day, and then creating nothing for weeks. Her next projects are small landscapes, probably in oil.
Is there any advice she can give to up-and-coming artists? “Try again, if at first you don’t succeed. Start small and expand gradually, start with the small things.” And what would she wish for if a fairy with a magic wand came along? Joan’s answer comes without hesitation: to have a picture in the Royal Academy! Then she laughs, adding: “No, not really – just to paint nice pictures that are presentable.”
Joan Palmer (born 1931) is based in Biddenden, Kent. Gunda Cannon was in conversation with her in December 2020.
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